Discovering the Gifted Ex-Child

By Stephanie Tolan

Abstract Most of the attention given to the gifted over the years has been devoted to gifted children, a population identified by unusual mental processing that sets them apart from the norms. Gifted adults, however, are recognized in our society solely by their achievements. The innate qualities of mind that are found in gifted children do not disappear as the children grow up. The unusual developmental trajectory of the gifted creates an extraordinary experience of life for the individual at any age, whether or not that individual is able to achieve in ways society recognizes and values. The achievement orientation that has always existed for adults and is now taking over the field of gifted education, makes it difficult for the gifted to understand the qualities of mind that make them different. Such an understanding is essential to honoring the self.


Stephanie Tolan is a consultant, writer, and a Contributing Editor of the Roeper Review.


The first act of honoring the self is the assertion of consciousness: the choice to think, to be aware, to send the searchlight of consciousness outward toward the world and inward toward our own being. To default on this effort is to default on the self at the most basic level. To honor the self is to be willing to think independently, to live by our own mind, and to have the courage of our own perceptions and judgments (Brandon, 1983).


The experience of the gifted adult is the experience of an unusual consciousness, an extraordinary mind whose perceptions and judgments may be different enough to require an extraordinary courage. Large numbers of gifted adults, aware not only of their mental capacities but of the degree to which those capacities set them apart, understand this.


For many, however, a complete honoring of the self must begin with discovering what sort of consciousness, what sort of mind they possess. That their own perceptions and judgments are unusual may have been obvious since childhood, but they may have spent their lives assuming that this difference was a deficit, a fault, even a defect of character or a sign of mental illness (Lovecky, 1986; Alvarado, 1989). Thinking independently may seem foolhardy or antisocial.


Who am I? is a question they may need to ask themselves all over again because the answers devised in childhood and adolescence were inaccurate or incomplete (Silverman & Keamey, 1989; Tolan, 1992; Wallach, 1994).


Where Have the Gifted Children Gone? Since the 1920’s thousands of books and articles have been written about gifted children, (see for example, BurksJensen, & Tel-man, 1930; Can-oil, 1940; DeHaan & Havighurst, 1957; Gross, 1992; Hirt, 1922; Hollingworth, 1926; Piirto, 1994; Stedman, 1924; Terman, 1925; Webb, Meckstroth, & Tolan, 1982; Witty & Jenkins, 1935; Zorbaugh & Boardman, 1936). Organizations of educators, parents and others have been formed to protect, preserve and develop their potential. (Hall & Skinner, 1980; Krueger, 1978). Factions have argued about definitions and terms, about whether it is nature or nurture or both that creates unusual intelligence, whether gifted children need or deserve special programs and educational resources (Burks et al., 1930; Galton, 1869; Margolin, 1994; Renzulli, 1978; Sapon-Shevin, 1987; Sternberg & Davidson, 1986; Witty, 1951; Yoder, 1894).


Meanwhile, generations of gifted children have come and gone, moving through and beyond the educational institutions where they have or have not been identified, have or have not been appropriately served.


These gifted children have disappeared into the vast territory of adulthood. Have they disappeared in the same way prodigies do? No matter how powerful the adult talent of a grownup child prodigy, he is no longer a prodigy, because the term is linked not solely to ability, but also to age. The adult, even if continuing to excel in his earlier domain, is forever an ex-prodigy. Does the gifted child, grown up, similarly become an ex-gifted child? Having left childhood and school behind, has she also left behind the differences that were recognized in the “gifted” label? Or could she more accurately be described as a gifted ex-child?


What is Giftedness? If giftedness is merely an artifact of rapid progress through normal developmental stages, it could be destined to fade when others catch up or even move beyond. If, on the other hand, it is a quality of mind that creates a genuinely unusual developmental trajectory, it would be a stable attribute, remaining with the individual throughout life whether outwardly evident or not.


Not everyone perceives giftedness in the same way. Some see it as the achievement of something out of the ordinary, essentially external (Gardner, 1993; OERI 1993; Tannenbaum, 1983). Others see it as an internal set of out-of-the-ordinary mental processes that may or may not lead to achievement (Columbus Group, 1991; Hollingworth, 1942, 1937; Shurkin, 1992). Traditionally, our culture’s perception has depended to some extent on the age of the individual under consideration.


Because childhood is inevitably and biologically a developmental period, giftedness in childhood traditionally has been seen in terms of unusual, measurable qualities of the developing mind. We recognize that it is something internal to the child that we are labeling. IQ tests were created to assess a child’s innate capacity to reason and to learn, and to the extent that they achieved that goal, they have been useful in locating children whose extraordinary potential requires unusual educational methods. The phenomenon of the “underachieving gifted child” obviously depends on our recognition that a child has unusual potential which is not showing itself in equally unusual achievement.


In looking at adults, however, the focus changes. We recognize the existence of gifted adults, of course. They are th